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MEPs have challenged representatives of the Nordic region’s largest bank, Nordea, about its continued role in the creation of offshore companies often used for tax evasion and money laundering, during a session of the Parliament’s special inquiry committee looking into the role of German and Nordic banks in the Panama Papers.

Soren Kristensen of the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR), one of the investigative journalists which reported on Nordea’s involvement with Mossack Fonseca -- the law firm at the heart of the scandal -- said there had been 11,000 hits about Nordea in the Panama papers and 400 Nordea clients linked to the law firm.  

The Head of Group Compliance at Nordea, Matthew Elderfield, revealed that the bank had closed 111 accounts following a review of its clients prompted by the Panama Papers revelations.  But this failed to satisfy Marcus Pretzell (DE, ENF) and Olle Ludvigsson (SW, S&D) who asked “have your stopped setting up shell companies in offshore tax havens?”

Mr Elderfield replied “Mossack Fonseca has now been exited.” He added that the bank had also “exited” the Cayman Islands and the Isle of Man.  But he insisted that offshore structures could be legal and that it was up to anti-money laundering procedures “to sort out the good from the bad.”

Lack of sanctions

This response failed to satisfy Eva Joly (FR, Vert) who protested about the lack of sanctions against banks found to have been involved with setting up offshore shell companies. “I have a feeling that this is a set-up, a covering up of what happened,” she said. She said that Nordea’s announcement that they had increased the size of their compliance department from 200 to 1,000 people was “a price that had to be paid to avoid sanctions.”

Earlier in the hearing, Mr Elderfield -- who was appointed to his position three months ago -- acknowledged that the bank had fallen below the standards set for itself and by regulators.  He said the bank had since embarked on “a journey of compliance which still has a way to go.”

Nordea’s admission of serious shortcomings contrasted sharply with the plea by the General Manager and member of the Board of Directors of the Association of German Banks, Michael Kemmer, who asked that the role of German banks be kept in proportion. 

He pointed out that German banks had acted as intermediaries in the creation of around 1,200 companies out of around 200,000 identified in the Panama papers.  He said that represented about 0.6 percent of the total.

Whistleblower’s evidence

The committee also heard from Katrin Keikert, a former compliance officer with Germany’s Beren Bank about her experience after she and a colleague discovered that a client -- a member of the Ukrainian mafia -- was using the bank to launder criminal proceeds.  She reported her findings to her superiors, but was later dismissed without notice.

Jeppe Kofod (DK, S&D) said he was “shocked” that after hearing Ms Keikert’s testimony, Mr Kemmer had failed to respond more directly to her evidence.  While Dariusz Rosati (PL, EPP) wondered whether self-regulation of banks was sufficient. 

Mr Kemmer said that “from my point of view, this has all been property investigated”.  In response to Mr Rosati’s question, he said that the banking sector worked with a “thick network of rules, and I don’t think we have much room for more.”